How busting stress could help your heart

Heart health could be linked to stress levels - here’s how to get stress under control and boost your overall health.

When you’re stressed, it can have a knock-on effect throughout your body. New research has shed light on the link between stress levels and heart health. The link between high stress levels and heart disease has been suspected for a long time, but this new research adds greatly to our understanding of how to look after our hearts and reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes.

The science

Two studies, carried out by Harvard researchers and published in renowned journal The Lancet, have produced the most detailed description yet of how stress can affect the heart. They suggest an association between high stress levels and an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. Indeed, the researchers have concluded that being stressed could be as dangerous for your heart as smoking or having high blood pressure1.

The studies suggest that when a person is stressed, their amygdala (which is the part of the brain that deals with stress) sends a signal to the bone marrow to produce more white blood cells. The increased number of white blood cells inflames their arteries. We already knew that inflammation is involved in the process that leads to heart attacks and strokes.

What it means

This research has added greatly to our understanding of how stress affects the body generally, and the heart in particular. The relationship between stress and heart health is a complex one, but doctors can be confident in saying that if you’re stressed, taking steps to manage that stress is important for your health . When you’re stressed, you’re more likely to take up unhealthy habits to help you cope, such as smoking, drinking too much alcohol or overeating. These habits are bad for your heart and can increase your risk of heart attack or stroke even more. But there are simple steps you can take to help you relax and bring down your stress level2.

Meditation

Planning
A recent study found that just 15 minutes of meditation per day reduces the risk of stroke and heart attack in people with chronic heart disease, by 48 percent2. Although the research looked at people who already have heart disease, practising meditation could have health benefits for everyone, including those who have high stress levels.

Regardless of factors such as age, gender and the condition of their health, people who meditate regularly tend to feel more balanced and less stressed. A Stanford University study found that after just eight weeks of meditation, there is increased activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex that help regulate emotions, and subsequently reduce stress2. Undergoing therapies such as CBT can also help you ‘retrain’ your brain to reduce the symptoms of stress and help you feel better.

In the short term, meditation or psychological therapies such as CBT can help to reduce the physical symptoms of stress. Meditation is an inexpensive and accessible coping mechanism that you can practice at home whenever it suits you. In the long term, it can actually help prevent stress in the first place, by giving you a sense of perspective and an increased awareness of your own reactions to stressful situations.

Exercise

The link between physical activity and lowered stress levels is well known and well documented. Taking regular exercise is an effective way to reduces stress and boost your mood. Activities such as walking or running that gets you out into green space, or team sports which include a high degree of social interaction, are particularly good for your mental and emotional wellbeing.

Sources

1http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(16)31714-7/abstract
2https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3485650/

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